City Breaks

Spooky Paris

Explore the darker side to the city of light with a trip to Paris and take in the cemeteries, catacombs, ghost tours and crypts

One easily spooked, one not so much, Rachel Ifans and Lucy Shrimpton poke around in the darker haunts of Paris history and legend.

Chills n thrills in Paris

Go on, admit it. There’s something about being spooked that’s ever so slightly irresistible – and if we’re talking scary tales from the past that enlighten you on the social history front too, well, what’s not to like? 

We’re in Paris, and though it may be better known as ‘the city of light’, we’re unearthing a mysterious dark side too, and every bit as alluring as the capital’s more iconic landmarks. Here’s our pick of Paris’ spooktacular visits; failing to drop these few extra pins on your sightseeing map would be… erm, a truly grave mistake.

Take a walking tour with a ghostly guide

When it comes to ghosts, are you a wide-eyed believer, or eye-rolling sceptic? Either way, under cover of darkness, everyone who embarks on a Haunted Tour of Paris comes away a little paler than they began. From Notre Dame to Fontaine des Innocents, 90 minutes of eye-opening tales of murder and mayhem – all based on historical fact – take in all the creepy basements and corners you’d otherwise miss the significance of. Find out what happened to the children of Rue des Chantres, for example, and discover why you’ll never eat a meat pie again!

Matt, a supernatural guide, is known for a light sprinkling of humour, a boundless knowledge of Paris, and the fact that he welcomes questions: “How do you say ‘Wa-ha-haaaah!’ in French again?”

Explore Paris’ underground catacombs and find out where the bones are buried (literally!)

What is a city’s history if not the sum of all those who have been before? Incredibly, in Paris, you can see this in the starkest of forms in Paris’ underground catacombs where the bones of millions of the city’s inhabitants from centuries past are on display in a labyrinth of tunnels under street level. 

And the story of how they came to be here is fascinating: from the 18th century, when central Paris’ medieval cemeteries became overcrowded and began to pose a health risk, it was time to move them a little out of town. 

On your 45-minute tour, feel the sense of anticipation mounting as you descend the eternal spiral stone staircase and read the history of the ossuary. Then, taking note of some frankly frightening engravings in French and Latin as you go (‘Elle est horrible la mort du pecheur’, one such to read with a gulp: ‘Death of the sinner is horrific’), you’ll pass endless stacks of tibias, fibulas, hips and skulls, a metre high and around 4 metres deep in places. 

Whilst their uniformity reminds us that at the end of the day us mere mortals are all the same, it’s poignant – and undisputedly eery – to think that each bone belonged to someone with a name, a family and a raison d’être. Stories abound about misdemeanours down here, with equal measures of speculation about whether they’re history or mystery. Either way, if something whispers in your ear, peg it.

A dimly lit underground chamber whose walls are lined with thousands of skulls and bones

Pere Lachaise, Montmartre and Paris’ hidden pet cemetery

For some, a cemetery is a peaceful place to wander, leaves crunching underfoot, and the dull moan of cars in the far distance. For others (ahem, those with ‘active imaginations’, as my mum would say), they have a creepier appeal, where the only crunching you hear is bound to be bones, and that not-so-distant moaning is definitely a gang of ghosts who tailgated you at the entrance.

Whatever your vibe, Paris has a cemetery for you. Let’s start with the biggest, Père Lachaise, the city’s star-studded out-of-town cemetery. Get a map and tour the most famous graves – we’re talking A-listers here with the likes of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Chopin and Molière. 

When the cemetery first opened in 1802, bodies of famous people were dug up and taken there to be reburied in a bid to attract more custom from Paris’ elite; possibly the most macabre marketing in history, but it worked – there are a whopping 100,000 graves there now.

Montmartre Cemetery is closer to town. This sunken city of sepulchres sits under the Pont de Caulaincourt and its grid-like avenues are lined with trees and big, often ornate, family tombs.

A bright sunny day in the Montmartre cemetery. A green ‘road’ sign reads Chemin Guersant, 31eme division

It’s more manageable to visit and although you don’t get graves guarded by security (like Jim Morrison), you can see those of Zola, Truffaut, Dalida and Degas. The fact that some sepulchres are shared by a couple of families put a chill down the back of even our toughest teen on a once-around-the-block at dusk.

Or, for something different, visit the pet cemetery in Asnières-sur-Seine, or the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques to give it its proper name. 

It’s a fascinating piece of history; in 1899, when a new law forbade Parisians from discarding their dead pets in the Seine, this place was founded, and it’s now the last refuge for many pets including Barry, famous St Bernard, Napoleon’s three-legged pooch, Moustache, and Dolly, a canny canine who parachuted in messages for the Resistance. Along with dogs, there are all sorts of four-legged friends and also the odd turtle, monkey and shark too.

A pale stone grave is adorned  with a big statue of a dog. Surrounding graves are decorated with pink flowers

The Pantheon and its celebrated crypt

This gothic monolith is a civic building designed to honour France’s heroes, and its crypt houses the remains of those deemed worthy of this accolade. 

Some of the best thinkers are buried there including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Victor Hugo, along with scientist Marie Curie and, from the end of November 2021, a new addition. 

Josephine Baker, the American born singer and dancer and French WWII hero, is the first black woman to be given France’s highest honour and be reburied in the crypt. It’s worth a visit for its incredible historical value but chill-seekers will also enjoy the low-lit tunnel access to the crypt and the gruesome religious paintings on display.

Places to stay in Paris

Family stay in Villages Nature, near Disneyland Paris

Les Villages Nature Paris is a sustainable holiday resort owned by Center Parcs and situated 30K from Paris. It’s a great place for a city break/activity holiday mashup: hire bikes and swim in the big pool complex one day, take the RER train to Paris the next (just 35 minutes), and book in for thrills at the nearby Disneyland Paris for your third day if that’s your bag.

Blue sky and a panoramic aerial view of a large lake surrounded by houses and in the foreground an empty pool complex

Couples stay immersed in Paris’ literary world

Ideally located on the Left Bank, L’Hotel is famous for being the place where Oscar Wilde died, so it suits our slightly macabre theme. You can stay in Oscar’s old room but if the thought of that puts the kibosh on romantic intentions, don’t worry, there are lots of other chi-chi chambres to choose from. You’ll have a Wilde time here – and remember, as the great man said, “Everything in moderation including moderation”.

Quirky B&B stay in The Marais

It’s unusual to get a really French B&B feel in a big city, but Bonne Nuit Paris is exactly that; just reference the breakfasts around a huge communal table for proof. You’ll fall in love with this place in The Marais; its quirky décor, ancient walls and modern amenities work together beautifully.

Spooky stay near the Chateau de Versailles

The light, bright apartments of Versailles City Home are a stone’s throw from Versailles and it’s a good base for spook-spotters. The ultimate symbol of the French Revolution, the chateau was where the country’s monarchy was overthrown in a bloody revolt; some say the ghost of Marie Antoinette still lurks and others claim to have seen 18th century noblemen wafting around its walls.

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About the Author

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

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